Regents Professor Vernon Ruttan brought to light many profound but hidden connections between technological and social change.
An economist for the ages
Vernon Ruttan revolutionized thinking about agriculture, technology, and social change
By Deane Morrison
For the second time in as many months, the University of
Minnesota has lost an economist who made an indelible mark on his
field. At age 84, Vernon Ruttan was still sharp, still writing a
book every couple of years, and still refusing to act like the
retired professor he was. But on Monday, Aug. 18, 2008, the
longtime Regents Professor died suddenly, depriving the Department
of Applied Economics and the University of one of its most
insightful and popular faculty members. His genius lay in bringing
to light the connections between technological and social change,
as well as the hidden effects of government policies and practices.
Ruttan, who also had an appointment in the Department of Economics,
was a friend and colleague of fellow retired Regents Professor
Leonid Hurwicz, the 2007 Nobel laureate in economics who died June
24. And, as with Hurwicz, his name often came up in discussions of
future Nobel Prize winners.
From farm to fame
Raised on a farm in the small northern Michigan town of Alden,
Ruttan studied at Michigan State University and Yale University,
where he received an undergraduate degree. After earning a
doctorate at the University of Chicago, he began his career at
Purdue University and came to the University of Minnesota in 1965
to head the Department of Agricultural Economics (now Applied
Economics). A keen interest in how human intelligence could be
applied to the improvement of social conditions drove Ruttan, says
his colleague C. Ford Runge, an applied economics professor.
"He believed in classical liberalism--that is,
the highest recognition of individual rights and liberties combined
with the need to protect those rights and liberties by the
establishment of social institutions."
"His scholarship was impeccable, and his public commitment obvious
for all to see," Runge recalls. "He believed in classical
liberalism--that is, the highest recognition of individual rights
and liberties combined with the need to protect those rights and
liberties by the establishment of social institutions."
The world noticed
Vernon Ruttan's honors include election to the National Academy of
Sciences (1990), the U.S. Department of Agriculture Distinguished
Service Award (1986), and the Alexander von Humboldt Award for
Agriculture (1984), given for the most significant contribution to
U.S. agriculture during the previous five years. He was also a
fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the
American Association for the Advancement of Science. He was named a
Regents Professor in 1986.
Foremost among his contributions was the "induced innovation"
theory, which he constructed with Japanese economist Yujiro Hayami.
It holds that when faced with scarcity of resources, people respond
by circumventing the scarcity through technological innovations and
social change. For example, says Runge, "Suppose water is scarce.
Farmers have learned to utilize irrigation systems. The
organization of [large] irrigation schemes requires a set of social
rules for sharing of water. Thus, technology and social change both
happen in response." Another phenomenon explained by Ruttan and
Hayami's theory concerns the way agriculture developed in different
countries such as the United States and Japan, says applied
economics professor Benjamin Senauer. In the United States, land
was plentiful but labor was not. Therefore, to get around the labor
shortage, "we made all sorts of advances in agricultural
technology." But Japan, lacking land, emphasized getting more out
of small plots. "There, the focus was on developing more productive
varieties," Senauer explains. "Much farming is by machines on the
scale of rototillers. The emphasis is on more production, using
technologies such as 'night soil.' "This pattern is seen in all
contexts and all industries. Every book in the field of development
during the last 20 years has had a section on induced innovation.
It occurs naturally in a market economy." Another area where Ruttan
made an impact was foreign aid. Several decades ago, says Senauer,
it wasn't obvious that the object of food aid should be to help the
recipient country increase its production or access to food.
Instead, it was tempting to "dump" U.S. farm surpluses in other
countries. But this depressed prices and discouraged farmers
abroad. "There's been a slow change, thanks to people like Vern
Ruttan, to shift foreign assistance in food from a focus on
benefits to the United States [from "dumping" surpluses] to a focus
on the benefits it provides to recipients." The economic roles of
government fascinated Ruttan. For example, a recent
documented the role of the military in driving "big
science" and "big technology" projects, and pointed out how such
support has been weakening. He also studied the value of
agricultural research, much of which is government funded. "He
found the payoff in improving corn and wheat varieties was
incredibly high," says Senauer. As a colleague, Ruttan was always
there to lend a hand. "He would make a luncheon appointment with
junior faculty just to visit and see how things were going,"
recalls Senauer. "He showed incredible generosity in helping them
along. He did the same thing with graduate students, whereas a lot
of big names try to protect their time." In retirement, Ruttan kept
up a torrid pace, says Senauer: "I used to joke with him. Every two
years, he'd come out with a new book. I'd say, 'Vern, is this your
last book?' He'd say 'Yup,' then he'd start another." Somehow,
Ruttan also found the time to canoe virtually every lake in the
Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota. Many
times, he paddled alone. He also maintained a fierce loyalty to
Gopher men's hockey. "He led a very balanced life," says Senauer.